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UK facing potential water crisis, warns Government

The UK faces a “drier future”, according to the Government’s National Infrastructure Commission. What can be done to prevent a potential water crisis? 

“Large” numbers of UK households could face extended water cut offs from drought over the next thirty years, a new Government report warns.

Homes and businesses face the risk of having water supplies cut off in times of severe drought if infrastructure and water efficiency are not improved, the National Infrastructure Commission warns.

It claims that water infrastructure across the UK is under strain. One fifth of the UK’s water supply is lost to leakages every day, and family water consumption has increased by more than ten litres per person a day.

There is a one in four chance that “large numbers” of households will lose water supplies for an extended period because “severe drought” over the next thirty years, it adds.

Why is this such a problem?

UK water companies have invested more than £140bn in infrastructure, mostly in order to meet environmental requirements agreed through the EU. Although the quality of drinking water and public confidence in supply are high, little new supply infrastructure has been built.

The report notes that leakage reductions have “largely stalled” in the last decade, and public consultations among water companies “demonstrate limited ambition” for improving long term resilience.

This lack of ambition it says reflects the UK public’s “limited” appreciation of drought and its consequences. Water companies might benefit from new supply infrastructure, but don’t always see the incentives to reduce leakage or demand.

Regulators are frequently perceived as overly cautious when agreeing to new supply without factoring in action on demand and leakage.

National Infrastructure Commission chairman Sir John Armitt said: “We take for granted that we will always have a reliable water supply, but despite our reputation for rain, the country risks water shortages.

“Climate change, an increasing population – particularly in the drier south and east of England – and the need to protect the environment bring further challenges.”

What can be done?

Water companies have been urged to consider a set of recommendations from the Committee as part of current planning for future water resources. Building resilience in the water supply reduces the chances of price surges and emergency responses to droughts that could in extreme cases lead to cutoffs.

Plans need to be put in place to reduce demand across the UK and increase supply. The average UK citizen uses 150 litres of water a day. This compares to 115 litres a day in Belgium and Denmark, which are among the best in Europe.

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) should set an objective for water companies to halve leakage by 2050, with five-year commitments delivered by UK water regulator Ofwat to ensure progress is reported on.

DEFRA is arged to allow compulsory metering beyond “water stressed areas” by the 2030’s. Regulations will need to be amended and all companies should consider a roll out of smart meters to tackle water efficiency.

“We want the Government to deliver a ‘twin-track approach to ensure plans are in place to create additional infrastructure, including a national water network and a significant reduction in demand,” said Sir John.

“At present, 20% of all mains water is lost to leaks, so we recommend that Defra should set an objective for the water industry to halve leakage by 2050.

“We also recommend allowing companies, beyond water stressed regions to be able to apply for compulsory metering alongside other water efficiency measures.

“If we are to avoid our taps running dry, in times of extreme drought, we need the Government to act on our recommendations without delay.”